We are nearing the end of our series on the seven words from the cross. Both last week's word ("I am thirsty") and this week's word ("It is finished") are from John's gospel and are intertwined in his narrative. We have followed the traditional ordering by treating them separately, but in their original literary context they go together as Jesus' final verbal act. I mention this because our reflection on this week's word deepens and develops themes from last week.
I'd like to reflect on this word from the cross by sketching some possible answers to two questions. But first, a preliminary comment.
Preliminary Comment: The Threefold Teleioo
John 19:30 is not the first appearance of the word "finished" (Grk: tetelestai) during John's passion narrative. In the preceding verses it appears not once but two times. First of all, Jesus is said to know "all had been accomplished (tetelestai)." Then, Jesus speaks in order to "complete (teleiothe) the Scriptures," which is an odd because the usual phrase is "fulfill (plerooma) the Scriptures." I do not want to dwell on these other two instance, except to note that a form teleioo appears three times in 19:28-30 as a unit. So it is clearly the emphasis of this passage.
Now on to my questions, both of which I think are crucial to a theological reflection on this word from the cross. I'm not sure which one is better to start with, because the answer to one affects the answer to the other. So I'll just begin with one arbitrarily.
Question 1: What is the referent of "it"?
What exactly is being finished? It is grammatically unclear. Is it simply that Jesus is about to die, quite obviously an "end" of some kind? Or is something else coming to completion? Is it just that the scriptures are now completed via Jesus' drinking of the vinegary wine? Or is it that his whole suffering has now reached its completion? If so, what exactly was being achieved in his suffering? If his suffering is not just something that happened to him, but something was accomplished in it, what is that something? Was it "drinking the cup of the Father" (whatever that means)? Was it being sacrificed as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Was it the whole of Jesus' mission? Was it some or all of these things? How do we decide, both exegetically and theologically?
Question 2: What is the sense of "finished"?
What does it mean for "it" to be "finished? As already evident in the mention of previous appearances of teleioo in this passage, the term has a wide range of meaning. It can mean finished, done, perfected, completed, accomplished, fulfilled, achieved, expired, performed, carried, etc. So it could just mean that this chapter has come to a close. But when matched with more some of the more loaded options concerning the reference of "it," you get talk of the "finished work of the cross." But what does this mean? Does this mean accomplished as an exclusively past tense event? Or does it mean perfected as something with ongoing effects? The sense given to finished will have significant consequences for how the death of Christ is understood soteriologically.
Well, those are some questions and some options for answering them. I have some inclinations, but right now I am just trying to map out the options. I'd love to hear what you think.